Interview with Katherena Vermette

Jan 20, 2014

Katherena Vermette, a Métis/Mennonite poet, won the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Poetry for North End Love Songs (The Muses’ Co.). Shayla Elizabeth is a Cree/Iniwé writer/storyteller based in Winnipeg.

Shayla Elizabeth: When did you know you were a writer?

Katherena Vermette: I always wanted to write, tell stories. Marvin Francis said that when you are writing, the stories are coming to life.

SE: When did you join the Aboriginal Writers Collective [since 2013 the Indigenous Writers Collective]?
KV: In 2004.

SE: Where did the poetry for North End Love Songs come from?
KV: Over many years, the last ten years, in fact. The first original poem I brought to an AWC meeting, right at the beginning, was “Happy Girls,” which Prairie Fire published in 2006. I also did some new ones in the year I was editing, which was 2011.

SE: Your favourite poem?
KV: No, can’t do that [laughs]. Feels wrong, like picking a favourite child.

SE: Your first section, “poised for flight,” has a strong bird motif, while the second section, “nortendluvsong,” is a lot about trees, especially elms.
KV: I read so many bird poems; I think I was saying them in my sleep [laughs]. With the tree poems, I obsessed about them, especially the elms. They are all over the North End. I did lots of research, including poems, for both.

SE: The third section, “november,” about the tragic loss of your brother, flows well.
KV: Thank you.

SE: Did it come in an organic whole, this poetry of trauma?
KV: I wish! [laughs] I worked on it the year before publication, carefully editing it, back-and-forth with the wonderful Clarise Foster. Working constantly on it, compulsively on it. It was really difficult, but it wasn’t until I switched from first-person point of view to third-person point of view that everything came together, clicked.

SE: More about your process, of writing such difficult emotions.
KV: I looked at photos a few years ago, but I didn’t want to do photo poems. Clarise [Foster] says this, so did Marvin [Francis], that a poem is like a piece of raw wood, raw, hard wood. One carefully pares away the excess, to reveal the form within. My process, for any poem, is that it happens slowly, to make sure it is in an authentic way. I started these [brother poems] a few years ago. I know what it sounds like, in my head; so when I start a poem, I don’t know what I mean until I write it out.

SE: Which came first, the music or the poem?
KV: Oh, like for “mixed tape”?

SE: Yes.
KV: The music suggested images, which are the organic part, I guess. I listened to the songs over and over again. The lyrics were helpful as well.

SE: It seems like there is theme of resilience.
KV: Oh, for “I am a North End Girl”? [the last section of the book]

SE: Sure.
KV: Well, it’s a return to the North End for me; I don’t want to look, but then having to look at it again.

SE: You have a very minimalist style.
KV: It’s just the way I end up writing. Through the process of writing, a lot gets pared down; structurally, that’s just the way things work out.

SE: As a reader of poetry, what do you look for?
KV: Indigenous, contemporary work. Indigenous poetry tells a story, and that’s what I wanted to do. Indigenous poetry has a little extra, there are layers and depths to it; activism is part of it. Some of the poets that have influenced me include my friends from the AWC, like Rosanna Deerchild, Marvin Francis especially, Duncan Mercredi, and everyone else; other writers include Louise B. Halfe, Joanne Arnott, and Marilyn Dumont’s A Really Good Brown Girl. I look for strong images suggested by poetry that allude to feeling, like [those by] Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams. I am also very interested in feminist poetry and Chicana poetry. Of the Modernists, I like e.e. cummings and T.S. Eliot.

SE: You finish your Master of Fine Arts in creative writing in April?
KV: Yes, finally!

SE: But it’s not poetry.
KV: No, certain things are poetry, some are stories. I was studying different aspects of writing and I’m working on a manuscript of short literary fiction for my thesis. I am now reading Lisa Bird-Wilson’s collection of short stories, Just Pretending (Coteau, 2013). She is a Saskatchewan Métis writer – the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild has the most amazing Indigenous programs! The Manitoba Writers’ Guild should look into having some of these programs. Also, Annabel Lyon, who is my thesis advisor, is a lot of support and a wonderful guide to short fiction.

SE: How has winning the Governor General’s Award impacted your writing?
KV: Getting more reading invites [laughs]. More [Facebook] friend requests. But yeah, it’s hugely encouraging, a big honour, but I’m still working, still writing, I have lots of projects lined up, I don’t have time to rest on my laurels. I have no time for writer’s block; I’m in a thesis program, there is no choice, I have to finish 26,000 words by February 6, 2014. I finished my children’s books; now I am telling the illustrator what I want – it’s a lot of fun! It’s a series on the Seven Sacred Teachings, meant for Kindergarten to Grade 4. The launch will be in September 2014.

SE:  Any plans after your master’s?
KV: Nothing. Take a long nap [laughs]. Still lots of writing to do.

SE: Advice for young poets and/or writers?
KV: Write, lots! Then edit the s—t out of it. Submit it to places like Prairie Fire. ♦

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